[ If you have been linked here directly, please click here first to read the disclaimer. ]
CHAPTER 20 ~ REWARD
The clouds glowed with a dusky reddish hue as Valois stepped out of the hole in time. As it sealed up behind him, a wave of heat slipped through to ghost across the nape of his neck, but the flames that it presaged could not follow it. He shook his head sadly as he slipped into the image that he always presented at this place. It paid to show the same face every time one visited here. People were mightily suspicious of change.
The baby cooed in his arms, her dark brown eyes - so reminiscent of her father's - staring up at the sky in fascination. Valois smiled down at her as his hair lengthened, catching her attention, and she reached up a tiny grasping fist.
"Ah, non, my sweet little one. You may not grab at my hair," he murmured, offering a finger for her to clasp instead. She hung onto it determinedly, her gaze returning to the curious sky.
"It is pretty, is it not?" He settled the baby comfortably into the crook of his arm as she released his finger, and he began walking. He kept his pace slow, so as not to alarm her, and looked down at her often. She seemed fascinated by the buildings they walked past, staring in rapt silence at them.
Soon enough, they reached their destination, and Valois paused for a moment. "Understand, child, this was not my decision. I act on the request of others, and would never hurt your father."
He raised her in his arms to kiss her downy little forehead, cradling her close to him. "He does not know of you, for he has forgotten the one mention I made of your mother's pregnancy; I have ensured of that. Your mother... ah, such a foolish choice to refuse my offer, for you are forgotten by all save her. Neither the midwife who brought you into this world, the nurses who tended to you, nor even your own auntie recall your existence. Your mother will try to speak of you to them, and they will all think her mad."
He sighed. "You will not recall your maman et papa, as you are so young now, but one day you might find out about them. Your father you will never find, and I hope for your sake that your mother is beyond this world if you ever find her, for I see all of time and her life after this will repay her selfishness before it."
Looking up at the tall, forbidding house, he brightened somewhat. "Shall we meet your new parents, my darling girl? Come!"
The walk up the steps was a long one, winding and twisted as they were, calculated to put off all but the most determined of visitors. But Valois was more determined than most; so much rested on his delivering this child to its destination.
Finally, he stood at the summit of the hundreds of steps. The air around him was frigid, but he paid it no mind, his breath ghosting in warm clouds as he stood at the door and rang the bell.
The bolt and latch slid back of their own accord and the door swung open silently. He entered, making his way unerringly to the room where he knew They sat.
You darken Our door again, beast. What is it that you wish of Us this time?
He cleared his throat. "My Lords, I have brought that which You requested in return for the eternal companionship of the mortal that I love."
Ah. The precious thing that it could not bear to lose. And this is it?
"His newborn daughter, yes."
Hm. Only a beast such as you would harrow a mortal soul so deeply and to such suffering to bring such a thing to Us for your own selfish gain.
Valois lowered his gaze. "My Lords requested the most precious thing he had," he whispered. "This is that thing."
There was a long, hollow silence in which the pit of Valois's stomach began, very slow, to drop. Was it not enough? Was it too much? Would They not grant him this? He had waited for so long; centuries gone by in loneliness as those that he'd loved withered and left the world.
It is indeed that thing, They said, and then he started as They added, even though you have ensured that it will not suffer because of the loss of it.
"I..." Thrown off-guard, he took a step back. "I love him, my Lords. I would ease his suffering if I could."
And yet you have hurt it more than anything else in its life. The Lords stood and faced him. Very well. We accept the gift. Place it on the floor.
Relief surging through him, Valois crouched down, carefully placing the baby on the carpeted floor. He smiled down at her, whispering a few nothing-words of comfort as he caressed her head, and then stood again.
The Lords watched him. Tenderness from one such as you?
"She gives my life back to me," Valois said, simply.
Ah. The Lords bent to pick up the baby, and she nuzzled against Their robe. They seemed taken aback, cradling her as Valois had done, and Valois wondered if They even knew what to do with her.
We have dispatched more mortal infants than you have lived days, beast, the Lords chided. We have cradled them as We delivered them to eternal rest. It is safe in Our care.
"She," he couldn't help but correct, hoping his impertinence wouldn't lead to Their refusing his request. "I know that mortals are nothing but a job to You, but she is Your daughter now."
She. The Lords seemed to be tasting the sound of that word on Their tongue. Yes, she is. Begone from Our sight, beast.
"My Lords... the promise that You made to me? For my companion...?" He lingered, uncertain that he should leave when They had not told him that he had, indeed, secured eternal life for Gunther.
Return to your home. We have begun the process. The sands are slowing in its hourglass. It will need your presence for the next few hours.
Valois bowed low; as deep a deference as he could give. "I thank Thee, my Lords," he murmured, but as he straightened They had already left the room. Walking out of the house, he sent his mind into the Veil, just briefly, and smiled as he saw Them carrying the baby upstairs to a crib...
...settling the little one inside it with a tenderness that he'd not realised They had...
...and standing watch over her.
The world opened up for Valois, Champs Les Sims bright with sunlight in the distance, and he stepped out of Midnight Hollow, back to the place where his eternal companion was waiting for him.